in the Wheel of the Year
Imbolc 2003, Vol 2-2
MatriFocus, a Cross-Quarterly Web Zine for Goddess Women Near & Far
On February 1, the Goddess emerges from her winter mound as the Snake Goddess. The Snake Goddess symbolizes the transformative element of the Goddess and heralds change such as spring renewal.
Since prehistoric times, the Snake Goddess has been a sign of the emergence of spring. People of the Neolithic Era carved images of snakes on bone and antlers. Artifacts have been discovered which show images of snakes together with other symbols of spring such as salmon, flowers and nesting birds. Prehistoric people would have seen snakes emerge from their hibernation in early spring and form pairs to breed. They represented this imagery in their art and probably incorporated it into their myths and rituals. Indeed, these beliefs are reflected in the folklore of the cultures that followed.
The Celts viewed the goddess, Brigid, as a snake who emerged from her mound on February 1, the first day of the Celtic spring. As the 'Two-faced One', Brigid was depicted with one side of her face old and rugged, and the other young and beautiful, reflecting the crone and the maiden. In Scottish tradition, Brigid was associated with the coming of spring, when she ousts the winter reign of the crone goddess Cailleach. As the snake emerging from hibernation, she replaces the crone of winter. Irish myth includes stories of the transformation of the Goddess from crone to maiden with the embrace of the hero, symbolizing the sacred marriage.
role of Brigid was taken over by the Catholic St. Brigit. St. Brigits
Day is celebrated on February 1. Rituals associated with St. Brigits
Day show her to be an aspect of the Snake Goddess. A silk headband,
known as a Ribin, was left out overnight to grow longer. It was then
used to cure headaches. The Ribin represents the linear Snake Goddess
in her role of healer. In the 1880s, Alexander Carmichael recorded another
custom -- the pounding of a chunk of peat in a stocking (an effigy of
the serpent). As the peat was pounded, the following verse was recited:
This custom points to an earlier tradition of honoring the snake as she emerged from the mound. It was believed that the Goddess would look with favor on those who did not harm her sacred snake. Over the years, the tradition changed from honoring the Snake Goddess to destroying the sacred snake, yet still retaining the protective verse. The emergence of the snake from its winter burrows was also associated with the prediction of weather for the coming year. In Scotland, it was believed that good weather on St. Brides Day would mean that winter conditions would last longer.
In Switzerland, serpents are also associated with spring. The Grimm Brothers relate Swiss folklore that describes dragons and serpents flying out of their mountain caves with the coming of spring.
The Lithuanians showed reverence to Saule, their sun Goddess, by taking care of her sacred green snake. Saule was depicted as a woman pouring light from a jug. She wore a crown with a snake on it, symbolizing fertility and abundance. She would be generous to families who treated her snake with kindness. To kill a snake was sacrilege to the goddess, who would weep upon seeing a dead snake.
On January 25, the Lithuanians celebrated the "Day of Serpents" as the beginning of the renewal of life with the spring. On that day, people prepared dishes for the snakes and invited them into the homes. The behavior of the snakes would predict how prosperous the year would be. If the snakes emerged and tasted the food, the year would be prosperous. If not, there would be misfortune in the family.
Predictions about the coming year by the behavior of snakes can also be found in practices of the ancient Greeks. At a sanctuary at Epirus in northwest Greece, a naked priestess would offer food to the snakes kept at the sanctuary. If the snakes ate the food, the year would be abundant. However, if they did not take the food, and frightened the priestess, there would be scarcity in the coming year. The belief in the ability of the Snake Goddess to predict the future can be traced to the Python at Delphi, the sanctuary which originally belonged to the Earth Goddess, Gaea.
The emergence of the Snake Goddess from her winter mound may be the forerunner of Groundhog Day, celebrated on February 2. This custom was brought to America by German immigrants in the 1700s as a Candlemas tradition. On this day, another hibernating animal, the groundhog, is believed to predict the weather based on whether it sees and is frightened by its shadow. Groundhog Day would be a good time to reflect on our own shadow, and embrace our own alter ego, rather than being frightened by it, bringing an early renewal of life. The message of the Snake Goddess, whether Medusa, Lilith, Wadjet, Manasa, Mami Wata, or Brigid, is to get in touch with our dual nature, balancing fascination and fear.